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Johnson homelessness referendum lawsuit in court

As early voting for the March 19 primary geared up in Chicago, voters were still in the dark about whether their choice on the so-called Bring Chicago Home referendum would count.

Lawyers were in court Wednesday arguing over the fate of the key plank in Mayor Brandon Johnson’s progressive agenda. But Circuit Court Judge Kathleen Burke did not rule on whether the lawsuit can proceed.

Large real estate interests oppose Bring Chicago Home, and brought the suit seeking to invalidate the question asking voters to change the structure of the city’s real estate transfer tax to charge more for more expensive property sales and slightly less for the first $1 million.

The Building Owners and Managers Association and several other real estate interests hoped to prevent the question from appearing on ballots. But since those ballots have already been printed, if BOMA wins, any votes on the referendum would not be counted.

Attorneys representing the large real estate interests who brought the suit argued against attorneys from the city and its board of elections in front of Burke Wednesday. The judge pledged to issue an order soon on the question’s fate.

BOMA’s suit against the Chicago Board of Elections takes issue with the three-part nature of the referendum question, the portion that decreases the tax rate for lower-value homes, and what they say is lack of clarity about what programs the extra money would fund.

Judge Murphy has several motions to weigh, including the city and election board’s motions to dismiss and whether the city can intervene in the case at all.

The referendum question asks voters to change the tax rate on one-time property sales.

The current city tax on real estate sales is a flat 0.75%. The Bring Chicago Home referendum question calls for slightly reducing the tax charged on the first $1 million in value — to 0.6% — while increasing the rate on properties valued between $1 million and $1.5 million to 2%, and boosting the rate even more on properties valued above $1.5 million, to 3%.

The City Council approved the referendum in November with hopes to bring in an additional $100 million in revenue.

Michael Kasper, an attorney for the BOMA-led coalition, argued Wednesday that the referendum “inappropriately combines” the tax decrease and the two separate increases, an example of “logrolling.” He also said the board of elections — not the city — is the only body that can grant them relief, because they print ballots and tally votes.

Charles LeMoine, the attorney representing the board of elections, argued the city is the more appropriate party to respond to the suit’s claims, and that the board was not responsible for the wording of the question. Johnson’s administration — not party to the suit currently — filed a motion last week to be included and to also dismiss the suit.

Both Johnson and the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless were confident the ballot question would stand, describing the lawsuit as a “political maneuver” to confuse voters and protect corporate real estate interests.

Meanwhile, the political campaign to sway voters has so far been an expensive one. The lead fundraising committee pushing a no vote — Realtors in Opposition to Real Estate Transfer Tax — has raised over $750,000 in the past year. The largest group in support — End Homelessness — has raised over $1 million in the same span. More money is expected to flow to the opposition from a 501(c)(4) — sometimes referred to as a dark money group — called Chicago Forward.

Backers estimate 93% of sales would be subject to the lower tax rate, while larger commercial properties such as offices, large apartment buildings, stores and industrial sites would shoulder a much bigger burden.

Real estate interests argue a yes vote would give the city a blank check, a message they are amplifying on the campaign trail.

A mailer and new “no” vote website paid for by the realtors’ campaign says there is “no plan for how to spend” the projected revenues from the tax hike and that the city is “sitting on” tens of millions of dollars in federal funding to build housing now.

City officials have said the funds could help pay for emergency rental assistance, buying and rehabbing shelter space, and direct housing help.

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